Religion and SpiritualitySkepticism

Sex Ed with James Dobson: In Which Conformity Leads us to Ruin our Bodies Through Drugs and Also Fail to Stand Up to the Evil Atheist Professor

I’ve written here, in reference to Josh Duggar, that I’m not really that bothered by most Christian hypocrisy.  Turns out, I’m wrong, Christians who tell me about the dangers of conformity to group social norms at the same time as they blithely inform me what I should be thinking and feeling, and the proper thing to say in certain contrived situations leads me to rage.  So this chapter on conformity was hard to get through.  I spent my adolescence in Sunday schools being asked to name the temptations teenagers face, to which the correct responses included and were limited to peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, and sex.  No questions in Sunday School ever departed from a certain limited set, and no answers could depart from a limited set of responses.

When I read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, his comment that the book was for the questions we didn’t know we were allowed to ask really resonated.  Because there were many years in which I did not know I was allowed to do something other than have trouble with peer pressure, go to a christian college, get married, and have children. And Christians dare to tell me it’s the secular world that wants me to conform.



We start the chapter with a condescending definition of conformity:

What does the word “conformity” mean to you? Is it just a mysterious word living in the dictionary, or does it relate directly to your daily living? Though you may never have used this  word before, you’ll need to become very familiar with its meaning. It will play an important role during the adolescent period of your life.

The good doctor has a PhD from an actual university in child development, so one might expect that he would be able to speak to people younger than himself without being obnoxious, but one would be wrong.

We have a few anecdotes.  In the first, Dobson relates being at an orientation with eleven women (though he refers to them as girls, and finds one “amusing”), not one of whom was willing to get up first to get a cup of coffee, but all of them followed him, such the brave and non-conforming man, to the coffee table.  With that demonstration of his superiority over the socialization pressures that affect men differently from women, we move on to a story about a teen choir who traveled to an event in Florida, and one fainted and then a bunch of others fainted.  Dobson claims that after the first faint, all the rest were due to conformity.  Personally, I think conformity is probably not the first reason I would go with for explaining why people not from Florida are fainting after traveling to stand up for a while in Florida.  Quite possibly under hot lights, and sometimes people don’t eat and drink well while traveling.

Oh, and Dobson still doesn’t get the concept of poverty.

This pressure to conform is so strong in some people that they feel uncomfortable if they are in any way different in any way at all.  If flared pants are “in” for boys, woe to the fellow who doesn’t get the message, and wears tapered pants!  If a girl walks funny or talks with a lisp, she may be laughed at everyday.  If Fords and Chevrolets are popular at a high school, a person had better not buy a Plymouth!

Everyone can just buy whatever clothes and cars are popular, right? Dobson does at least does acknowledge that bullying is a problem, mostly by telling us that as a child he had to learn to be kind and actually blames his Sunday School teachers for not making him be not a bully.  Seriously.  He tells us that when he was nine years old, there was a new boy, named Fred, in Sunday School, Dobson thought his ears looked like jeep fenders, and starting calling him jeep fenders until Fred ran out of the classroom crying.

Why was I so cruel to Fred?  It was because no one had ever told me that other people were as sensitive about being teased as I was.  I thought I was the only one who didn’t like being laughed at.  The teachers of my many Sunday School classes should have taught me to respect and protect the feelings of others.  They should have helped me to be more Christlike.

I would like to remind us all here that Dobson holds a PhD in child development from an actual university.  Presumably he knows enough about how children develop empathy to know that blaming the lack of it in children on Sunday School teachers that the children see at most once a week (and these teachers probably have no qualifications to be teachers other than a willingness to do it, or, more likely, an unwillingness to say no.) is not particularly either accurate or fair. My qualification to teach Sunday School to three-year-olds was a guilt trip from my mother and as far as teaching Christlikeness, about the most I could do was physically prevent them from hitting one another.   I also took them to the bathroom a lot. I guess that was Christlike since presumably if he existed he also metabolized.

With some more anecdotes, Dobson demonstrates he acknowledges both race and disability.  We hear abotu a black child who hides his skin as much as possible and a child who buries his glasses so he won’t look different.  He says, about the buried glasses story, “This is the discomfort felt by those who can’t conform. They need our understanding and kindness.”  Up to this point, conformity has only been for people who felt inferior,  and are therefore weak, so I think Dobson believes those with disabilities need special dispensation to be weak.  That’s offensive. But in Dobson’s world, unimportant.    We’re going to talk about drugs!

Suppose you’re in a car with four other young people, each about 15 years old [this is illegal in most states, I think]. You’re driving around at night, looking for fun, when the driver reaches into his pocket and retrieves a bottle with some little red pills in it.  He takes one pill and pops it in his mouth, and then hands the bottle to the guy sitting by the door. He laughs and takes a pill and hands it to the three of you sitting in the back seat. You are the last one to be handed the bottle and all four of your friends have taken the pills.

As it is handed to you, what are you going to say?  You know that these capsules are called “reds,” and that they are very harmful to the body.

After some reading on the CDC website, I think he is referring to secobarbital, which was commonly available as a sleeping pill in the 70s.  However, Dobson refers to a girl who took 10-20 of these per day and her body was “wracked and ruined.”  Based on what was described by the CDC as the very low therapeutic to lethal ratio of this drug, 10-20/day seems likely to be fatal.  Of course, I generally suspect Dobson of making up all his anecdotes, and even if he’s not, due to the lack of regulation of recreational drugs, it’s actually hard to know for certain that people are really taking what they think they are taking and in what amounts. Also, wracked and ruined is not a clinical description.  Any older than teens or vicenarian readers around who know a lot about drugs in the 70s who could help us out here?

Anyway, after talking about destroying our bodies with “reds,” Dobson does two things I think you should probably not ever do in regard to talking about drugs.  The first being give horrible advice about how to refuse, to whit “you can say, ‘If you guys want to do something crazy, go ahead.  But I think it’s stupid!’ That’s not being childish.  That’s a way of showing you have the courage to oppose the group when they’re wrong.”  I don’t think making a big deal out of refusing, coupled with insults, is maybe the best way to refuse drugs without being bullied.  However, more problematically than his contrived scenarios, Dobson seems to be both misunderstanding and stigmatizing drug addiction, as well as conflating use with addiction.  There’s a difference.

Other harmful behaviors can also be traced to the pressure of conformity.  Why do you suppose teenage alcoholism is such a serious problem in this country?  Why else would cigarettes continue to be smoked by young people, even though they know that the habit has been proven to shorten life, contaminate the lungs, increase the risk of cancer, and damage the blood vessels?    Why do teenagers pick up that first cigarette and inhale the filthy smoke into their pink lungs?  It usually begins by a “friend” offering a weed to someone who has never smoked.  He says, “would you like a puff?” And, unfortunately, the non-smoker lacks the guts to say “No way!”

Another more likely answer to the rhetorical questions might be: drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes make people feel good, and the U.S. doesn’t have a particularly healthy culture to talk reasonably about recreational substances, but blaming drug use on people not having guts to refuse is probably not going to help. In fact, some fact sheets from the government department of health and human services specifically state that we have moved on from considered drug addiction a moral failure or lack of will.  Unfortunately, in the 70s, we had not moved on from regarding addiction as something that just happens to the teenager who lacks guts.

In closing:

I heard a true story of a young man who was a very courageous young Christian.  After graduating from high school, he entered a state university near his home. During the first few weeks of class, a godless professor asked his class if any students considered themselves to be Christians. It was obvious that the professor intended to embarrass anyone who raised his hand. This young man looked around and saw that none of the two hundred students was going to admit his faith. What should he do? He either had to admit his Christianity or deny it, like Peter did when Jesus was about to be crucified. He suddenly held up his hand and said “Yes, I’m a Christian.”

The professor made him stand in front of the class and said, “How could you be so stupid to believe that God became a man and lived here on earth? That’s ridiculous. Besides, I read the Bible and it didn’t say a thing to me.”

This young man looked right at the professor and said, “Sir, the Bible is God’s letter to Christians.  If you didn’t understand it, that’s what you get for reading someone else’s mail!”

This particular Christian urban legend has been extant since at least 1978.  It’s still  not convincing.  Saying s story is true does not make it so.

Next chapter is “something crazy is happening to my body.”  We will learn about venereal disease and masturbation.  Finally!

Featured image credit: Alessandro Liguori via flickr.

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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